San Francisco is built on many hills and a major contribution to the city's development occurred in 1873 with the invention of the cable car. Since 1964 these tram-like vehicles have had the unique distinction of being the only public transport system to be declared a historic monument.
Cable cars are a fun way of seeing San Francisco while enjoying some of the city's history first hand.
The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde are the most scenic routes. The cable cars will also get you to the major attractions such as Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square the Ferry Building, Nob Hill, and Lombard Street.
If you are planning on more than a couple rides or are going to be sightseeing for a few days you should consider buying a pass.
Andrew S. Hallidie was an Englishman who came to California at the time of the Gold Rush. He made steel cables for mining. In those days all transport was horse drawn and when in 1869 Hallidie witnessed a serious accident caused by a horse losing its footing on a slippery road, he conceived the idea of replacing the horse-drawn trams with a more modern system. On August 2nd 1873, after three years experimentation, he successfully demonstrated the first cable car in Clay Street.
His invention incorporated a moving cable running in a trench under the street, driven by huge wheels housed in specially constructed engine sheds or "barns". The "gripmen", as the drivers are called, lock the cars in position on the traveling cables; thus held fast they are able to cope with even the steepest of the city's hills. In 1890 there were no fewer than eight companies running cable car services, with more than 600 vehicles and over 100mi/160km of track.
Cable cars today
Today there are just 40 cable cars operating on three surviving lines, forming a network only 10.5mi/17km in length. The cars proceed at a steady pace of 9.5mph/15kmph. Of the old barns, only one remains. Most of the rolling stock still in service dates from the last century. Built of wood the cars seat 30-40 passengers but there are generally another 50 or so standing or strap-hanging.
In spite of numerous accidents the cable cars hold a special place in the hearts of San Francisco's residents. The city's constitution includes a clause forbidding discontinuance of the service. Between October 1982 and June 1984 the service was suspended for a long-overdue overhaul of the network and the cable cars themselves. The final cost was $60m of which all but $12m came from the state of California.
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